Slow Water at Terra Madre

27 Feb 2009

The participants began to trickle into the room and everyone put on their headsets as the moderator checked the sound system—the din of the Oval at Lingotto was replaced by the buzz of the world getting ready to communicate. The water and agriculture workshop was one of my first Terra Madre experiences and I was excited about it. Would the visionary idea of bringing together people from all over the world to have a conversation about food really produce something useful, something more than a warm, fuzzy feeling?

Before the workshop there had been a very interesting exchange of ideas through an on-line forum; I was keen to see how this would expand and what new exchanges would take place. Some of the issues raised on the forum included: the relationship between poverty reduction and access to water; the water crisis behind the food crisis; environmental issues in relation to water and agriculture; the importance of pioneering experiences in helping find solutions to water-related issues. The on-line forum was a good addition to this year’s Terra Madre gathering and it helped to get discussion going before the actual event. However, it was hard to imagine that all participants would have access to the Internet and would be open to taking part in this type of communication. What role can new technology play when it comes to creating a dialogue about development and sustainability? It still seems necessary to come together in the same room and communicate face to face.

The participants gathered closer to the front of the room and began to settle into their seats as Rami Zurayk opened the workshop by underlining the centrality of water-related issues in the good, clean, fair production of food. Prof. Zurayk, from the American University of Beirut, moderated both the on-line forum and the workshop. In each instance Zurayk managed to create a space that encouraged participation and dialogue between incredibly diverse actors.

I had always appreciated the idea and vision behind Terra Madre but I never really understood how moving and powerful it could be to gather people from all over the world to talk about food and share personal experiences. As the water and agriculture workshop got going a number of researchers and farmers from North America expressed their concerns about water access and agriculture. Many gave examples of techniques they used for water-wise irrigation, drought-resistant plants and seed stock as well as sustainable cultivation techniques that allowed for major water conservation. Water scarcity was not the only issues on the agenda: a woman from Ireland spoke about the challenges of soil erosion due to excess amounts of water in her rainy home country. Although this was all very interesting and stimulated a great deal of discussion, I was afraid that it was going to be conversation dominated by Americans and Europeans.

As the ball got rolling, this was not the case at all: first, a farmer from Mexico stood up and began to talk about water access issues and the perils of privatisation. He talked about how his farm was affected, the everyday issues of not having enough water to grow crops and what his preoccupations for a very dry-looking future. Next, a strikingly graceful woman raised her hand. She stood and explained that she was from the Tuareg tribe of the Sahara desert in Africa. The Tuareg are primarily nomadic pastoralists and their main livelihood is livestock breeding and trading. The woman who spoke during the workshop talked about the challenges faced by her people due to long periods of drought: she explained that when no water can be found, her people must slaughter their animals and drink the water found in their stomachs. To a Tuareg this is an action taken out of desperation, when there are really no other options. This is a form of killing off your long-term source of life to save you in the short run from thirst. Drought and water access issues reach far beyond agriculture and perhaps hit those practicing other forms of subsistence the worst. This story was particularly moving but there were many others throughout the session.

You might be asking yourself how all of this talk of water fits in with Terra Madre and Slow Food? Well, without water there would not be any food. That is why water is perhaps one of the most pressing issues that Slow Food and the Terra Madre network need to address. In the face of climate change and raging issues of environmental pollution, the participants of the water and agriculture workshop agreed that it was time to take action. We all felt it was not enough to just talk once and then return to our own isolated realities. As the session was wrapping up, Rami Zurayk could feel the energy in the air and he proposed that we not end here. He could tell that this discussion was far from over so he moved to take a few minutes at the end of the workshop to define the goals for a new network focused on water.

Slow Water was born out of the Terra Madre water and agriculture workshop. This movement aims to assist in the exchange of techniques, technologies, knowledge and seeds; promote advocacy that aims to raise awareness of the current water crisis; facilitate networking with groups that are working to solve water-related problems; and lobby in support of rights related to water. It was amazing to witness the grassroots birth of Slow Water. For me this was a moment in which Terra Madre truly achieved its goal: diverse people came together to help each other face complex challenges and we were able to imagine new possibilities for a different world—a world in which the basic human right to water is upheld.

Rachel Black, Researcher, University of Gastronomic Sciences

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